Metacognitive Development in First-Year Composition

Contributed by William J. Carpenter

Course Name/Level: First-Year Writing

This program-wide approach is an example of one that reflects the principles in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. You can view a list of other assignments, activities, and program-wide approaches.


Framework Connections

The first-year composition program at High Point University builds from the metacognition element of the Framework, and uses that element as a way of fostering student growth across many of the other elements. Students engage in regular, structured reflective writing activities that promote the development of self-assessment and meta-linguistic skills. As students learn to explain their composing decisions and analyze their instructors’ feedback, they gain opportunities to think deeply about their ownership of their ideas and their emerging identities as curious, creative intellectuals. The reflective component to the curriculum encourages students to stay engaged with their ideas beyond the initial due dates and to consider viable alternatives within their writing processes.

Program Description

The first-year composition program introduces students to analytical thinking and reflective learning, both of which are concepts central to success in college. The courses do not attempt to prepare students for specific discipline-based writing situations. Instead, they promote habits of mind that should help students navigate various discourse expectations. In this sense, the program’s approach connects directly with the University’s liberal arts mission, which includes educating students to be mindful, engaged members of their communities. Within the institutional context, the composition courses encourage students to be both curious and active in all of their learning. The program works with instructors in other disciplines to help them employ revision and reflection activities as ways of aiding knowledge transfer and skills development.

Research/Scholarship Connections

The first-year writing curriculum draws on theories of knowledge transfer (particularly as they relate to activity systems theory), reflective learning, and metacognitive development. It is also informed by longitudinal studies of writing, such as those done at Stanford, Pepperdine, CUNY, and the University of Dayton.

Detailed Explanation

The first-year composition courses at High Point University (HPU) center on the concept of metacognitive development, the increasing of one’s abilities to reflect on one’s own learning and to transfer knowledge across contexts. The courses promote such development by engaging students in scaffolded analytical writing projects that are joined with intensive reflective writing assignments. The projects emphasize writing as an act of revealing; that is, students employ writing as a means to uncovering how and why things occur in the world. The reflective assignments focus the students’ attention onto the “how and why” of their own writing, asking them to consider the processes by which their texts have come into existence. This pairing of analytical and reflective writing is meant to achieve two related goals. The first, to empower students to take responsibility for their ideas and their texts while developing their curiosity and persistence in the pursuit of knowledge. The second, to teach them how to use reflections, feedback, and assessments to build flexible strategies for revising their writing and for succeeding in other writing situations. In pursuing these goals, the HPU writing program seeks to prepare students generally for college-level learning.

The composition curriculum can be completed in two ways. Most students take College Writing and Public Life, a one-semester course. Students whose placement surveys and high school records demonstrate the need for prolonged instruction enroll in Invention and Analysis, a two-course “stretch” sequence. Regardless of their placements, students work toward the same learning outcomes, which have been adapted from the CWPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition. The program has developed an additional outcomes category for “self-awareness competencies,” which describes the self-assessment, meta-linguistic, and strategizing skills that help writers strengthen their metacognition. Students compile final portfolios of their work to demonstrate how well they meet or exceed the CWPA-informed learning outcomes. They develop and demonstrate their self-awareness competencies through reflective writing assignments and the cover letters that accompany their portfolios.

The development of self-awareness is, like writing, a recursive and social process that can be studied and productively disrupted. As Kathleen Yancey explains, reflection is a form of theorizing that “doesn’t occur ‘naturally’” to most learners. As such, “it requires structure, situatedness, reply, [and] engagement” (19). Yancey’s point encouraged the program to make its reflective assignments a regular component of the project submission process and of the post-assessment dialogue between student and teacher. Students complete groups of reflective questions, called “postwrites,” as they submit their projects. The concept of postwrites comes from Nedra Reynolds and Rich Rice’s book Portfolio Keeping: A Guide for Students. As they explain, postwrites are usually responses to questions about the composing process. The responses help students articulate their writing decisions and make a judgment as to their effectiveness. They also help instructors narrow their feedback to respond directly to the students’ difficulties and concerns (20). In the program’s version of postwrites, students not only answer specific questions about their composing processes, they also assess their texts using common project rubrics. Such self-assessment helps instructors locate areas of disconnect between the students’ perceptions of their performances and the program’s stated expectations for their writing.

Instructors provide students with facilitative, revision-oriented feedback on their drafts and then complete assessment rubrics that are keyed directly to the course outcomes. The rubrics show students the extents to which their texts demonstrate the competencies listed in the outcomes. After receiving feedback and assessment, students complete another set of reflective questions. These questions focus the students’ attention onto two areas: the receptions their texts received from their instructors, and the strategies they might employ to revise the texts for the final portfolios. This first area ensures that students read their instructors’ comments thoroughly and in the context of the course outcomes. It also challenges them to analyze any differences between their self-assessments and their instructors’ assessments. The second area requires students to re-imagine their texts in light of the feedback, to construct a game-plan of sorts for revising their projects for the final portfolio. In this area, students must employ the language of the course outcomes as they consider alternative composing decisions.

By the end of the semester or year, students have written nearly as many reflective pages as they have pages for their major projects. These pages have materialized many of their intellectual and emotional responses to the assignments and their instructors’ feedback, providing students with analyzable data on their thinking and writing processes. The reflective writing has also provided opportunities for students to write about their literacy skills in ways that teach them to pull examples from their own work and to employ specific terminology from the courses. Students who meet the self-awareness competencies have demonstrated some skill in describing and analyzing rhetorical challenges and their own subsequent responses. They have also shown an ability to think outside of the current moment, to view immediate intellectual tasks in light of their prior learning experiences. As the Framework argues, such metacognitive awareness enables students to respond to future learning experiences with greater agency.

Works Cited

Reynolds, Nedra and Rich Rice. Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Students. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State UP, 1998.